Newport Jazz Festival 2023 Making Waves of Jazz Fusion for 69 > 70 Years

Article Contributed by Marinda Snow | Published on Thursday, March 28, 2024

The Newport Jazz Festival just announced that tickets will go on sale and the lineup will drop for the 2024 festival (August 2-4) on April 9th at 1PM Eastern, which has this East Coast mama reminiscing of all my favorite moments from last year! After having finally experienced the longest-running jazz festival in the country last year, it quickly made its way to the top of my ever-expanding list of favorite summer fests. I’ve been so excited to share some of my favorite memories from 2023 in anticipation of celebrating 70 years since its inception in 1954!


I must preface, if you were like me having only attended the Newport Folk Fest, not the Jazz Fest, it’s ok. They’re back-to-back weekends and not everyone can swing it. If you’re also like me having only attended The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, it’s ok I understand. I know timing is everything and nothing compares to being on the fairgrounds in The Big Easy, immersed in New Orleans culture, music, and food (Mango Freezes & Crawfish Monica Mmmmm)! I digress. I was there until this past summer when I finally made it to the oldest running jazz fest in the world; in quaint and luxurious Newport, Rhode Island. If you appreciate the art of musical improvisation (*eh hem jam band lovers*), this festival is calling you to come see, hear, and learn more about the roots of improv. If you haven’t attended a Jazz Fest yet, do it, and avoid that inevitable residual Jazz Fest FOMO!


Jon Batiste | Newport Jazz Festival

Riding in the wake of a successful Newport Folk Festival (NFF), the highly anticipated Newport Jazz Fest (NJF) set sail on August 4-6, 2023 at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, RI. Folks have been admiring the caliber of talent at the NJF for 6 (almost 7) decades now; this summer featuring artists only one could dream of seeing all in one place for a weekend of jazz fusion, baby!  NJF have been making dreams come true since 1954, and 2023 was no exception. The anticipation of seeing some of the acts of the main stage alone (i.e. Jon Batiste, Herbie Hancock, Thundercat, Branford Marsalis, Joe Russo’s Almost Dead featuring Branford Marsalis, Soulive, Lakecia Benjamin & Phoenix, and Diana Krall) made me dance in celebration before the weekend commenced!


Newport Jazz Festival

Music lovers from all over the world streamed into Fort Adams State Park via boats, bikes, and automobiles carrying chairs, soft-sided coolers, and accouterments to make their personal Jazz Fest experience the best it could be. Navigating between 3 stages (Fort Stage, Quad Stage, and Harbor Stage), attendees patiently walked with and around each other in the hot sun, weaving an intricate web of improvisation; all chasing the music. Pro-tip: I find it helpful to give myself extra time to get from one place to the next. I like to account for impromptu stops along the way to see music I’ve never heard before. To quote Ferris Bueller, “If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,” and that rings true here. Expect the unexpected at Fort Adams and surrender to the flow of opportunities laying around the next corner.


Endea Owens | Newport, RI

If you were lucky enough to arrive when the gates opened at Fort Adams on Friday, you were probably drawn to Endea Owens & The Cookout in the heart “center” of Fort Adams at the Quad Stage. I absolutely love her musical style ‘n’ energy on upright bass in Stay Human and The Late Show Band, but seeing this Juilliard graduate live in light of the day as the leader of her own band, is to truly see her in her element. Might I add she was a beacon in her gorgeous yellow dress with all of the flare & all of the feathers & the fab fuzzy red hoop earrings? YES! Sunshine Daydream! Endea Owens is clearly following the path of who she was born to be. Check her out live and/or on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and keep supporting artists like Endea!!

Lakecia Benjamin | Newport Jazz

Lakecia Benjamin and Phoenix was the perfect fit to christen the Fort Stage and dressed like the sun for the occasion!! We basked in Benjamin’s saxophone, soaking up sweet contemporary jazz compositions and her golden lyrics. I left with a great sense of gratitude for discovering this new music and knowing the world is a better place because of the art and high vibrations Lakecia Benjamin puts out into the universe. Following Lakecia’s masterful set, Alfa Mist laid down his hip-hop beats on the main stage gracing us with his flare of contemporary jazz, infusing spoken word, and seeping with soul. The crowd was pumped and perspired as they danced throughout Alfa Mist’s wicked cool set on this wicked hot August day.

Big Freedia | Newport Jazz Fest

I could have stayed at the Fort Stage all day, seeing new music with ships sailing by in the harbor and seagulls soaring above our heads, but when Big Freedia is starting in the Quad you just gotta say “LET’S GO,” ‘n’ “release your wiggle!” The crowd EXPLODED with excitement as the Queen Diva mesmerized us with her bars, beats, and stunning backup dancers. Her empowering body-movin’ energy & body-positive lyrics is what people love and come to see… AND directly participate in! In the middle of her set, she called on “ANYONE and EVERYONE” to come on up and release their wiggle on stage.  I watched and cheered as volunteers danced for their booty-ful lives! Just when you thought it couldn’t get better, Big Freedia encouraged everyone to form a “Soul Train” down the middle aisle moving towards the stage! As much as I wanted to jump on the track, I was already at the end of it, so I boogied with smiling strangers; grateful to be a part of this sweaty ‘n’ spontaneous dance party!

Soulive | Newport Jazz Festival

Eric Krasno | Soulive

Alan Evans | Soulive

Neal Evans | Soulive

In the middle of some serious twerk action, I realized I was going to miss Soulive if I didn’t peel myself away and head to the Fort Stage. This trio (Alan Evans, Eric Krasno, and Neal Evans) never disappoints. We grooved and relished in these jaw-dropping jams throughout the 60-minute set. A definite highlight of the set is when Brandford Marsalis sat in to cover a rockin’ “Nubian Lady” by Yusef Lateef (a former mentor/teacher of Eric Krasno’s). Their studio version with Karl Denson is on the Spark EP,  and seeing it live with Marsalis was perfection.

Newport Jazz Festival 2023

During a break-ish in the music, we had some time to dip into the artist/vendor tents to check out the goods. I bought a cool tarpestry for an easy cleanin’ stylish outdoor lounging experience (loved all of their Dead-themed patterns)! It was also a pleasure to run into my friend, fellow lover of jams, and amazing artist Dave Russo (Scribbles of Dave, Primate Fiasco)! Dave was producing art in front of our very eyes as the Fort Stage music surrounded us. I danced away with Muppet drawings of “Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem - March 19, 1975” and of “Animal,”  which are now proudly displayed on my wall of inspiration! Thanks, Dave. You’re an animal!

Durand Jones | Newport, RI

I heard it through the grapevine to check out Louisiana native Durand Jones at the Harbor Stage, if I wanted to get a taste of contemporary R&B and soul infusion. He gave me all the feels and made my heart swell for Crescent City.  DOMi & JD Beck kept the Quad Stage warm with their funky, jazzy, soulful vibes wrapped up in happy harmonies; facing each other as they played. Their debut studio album in 2022, Not Tight, left me wanting to hear/see more from this intelligent couple of creative humans. Once I saw their wildly unique music videos online (i.e. SMiLE), I knew I had to see what they were all about! Their set brought a whole lotta smiles and a whole lotta new fans! DJ Pee Wee (Anderson.Paak), who is featured heavily on DOMi & JD Beck’s album, kept that fire going on Quad Stage during his vinyl dj set, which was a hot ‘n’ sweaty funtime dance party!

Branford Marsalis | Newport Folk Festival

Branford Marsalis, a familiar presence at the Fest, fired up the Fort Stage with listeners hooked on every note of this seamless set. Marsalis spoke beautifully in both soprano and tenor sax, accompanied by the other brilliant people making up his quartet - William “MoBetta” Ledbetter on upright bass, Justin Faulkner on drums, and Tony Calderazzo on the piano. I didn’t want that musical conversation to end after 65 minutes, however, Branford wasn’t going anywhere. Joe Russo’s Almost Dead (JRAD) added Marsalis to their roster after Kamasi Washington could not attend. This unplanned collaboration excited those of us who call ourselves “Dead Heads,” as we know full well Branford Marsalis played with the Grateful Dead 5 times in the early ’90s (Nassau Coliseum 3/29/90, NYE show in Oakland 1990, Madison Square Garden 9/10/91, LA Sport Arena 12/10/93 & 12/16/94). It was history in the making again and a nice nod to what came before - “‘til things we’ve never seen will seem familiar.” Can you tell I was most excited about this performance?

Joe Russo | Newport Folk Festival

Scott Metzger | JRAD

Jon Shaw | JRAD

Tom Hamilton | JRAD

Marco Benevento | JRAD

Branford with JRAD | Newport Jazz Fest

JRAD started their 7-song set with The Tony Williams Lifetime cover “Emergency” > King Soloman’s Marbles > Row Jimmy > Let it Grow > Estimated Prophet > Terrapin Station > Brokedown Palace. It’s hard to put into words how incredibly moving this entire experience was, but if you know these songs you can imagine how powerfully evocative it must have felt. As they let their instruments go spiraling through a whirlwind of improv, I let my inspiration flow dancing along as I attuned to the rhythm of the instruments. My Dead-themed hand fan is always 100% practical, but whenever we get to Terrapin I always acknowledge the Lady With A Fan and create a stronger breeze… respectfully. The last note of the poignant and heart-centered closer, “Brokedown Palace,” left me with salty tears in the seabreeze; a good sign of an epic first day of NJF ‘23!

Day 2

Jennifer Hartswick | Newport Jazz Festival

Newport Jazz Festival 2023

Saturday’s Jazz Fest lineup was juicy and just what the doctor ordered. The jam band scene’s beloved Jennifer Hartswick (TAB) started the festivities, serenading the crowd as the Jennifer Hartswick and Nick Cassarino Duo. Lots of smiles and goosebumps appeared due to her vibrant vocals and his gorgeous guitar playin’. I’ve always felt that anything Hartswick does, I’m here for it. I linked to a video of their cover of Radiohead’s Creep, for a glimpse into the duo’s sound/vibe/talent.

Camille Thurman kicked off the Harbor Stage by bringing the sax, scat, and her sweet voice to Newport. For those classic jazz lovers, this 37-year-old Queens native is one not to be missed. Thurman is a heckuva band leader and has a beautiful voice with so much range that it’ll leave you in awe! Harbor Stage had back-to-back saxes as James Brandon Lewis followed Thurman with his stellar show. Blowing minds with his trumpet in the Quad, Keyon Harrold performed newer and older tunes alike, sharing those heart-opening and mind-expanding lyrics of love and revolution. I only caught a glimpse of what he can do, but what I heard was enough to want more. Superblue, led by Kurt Elling and featuring Charlie Hunter, Katie Smith, and the Huntertone Horns (later playing with Louis Cato & Jon Batiste), were super fun and funky. The band got those hips swinging early and warmed up the crowd a whole 6 hours before Jon Batiste was due to take the stage later that evening!

The War & Treaty | Newport Jazz Festival

The War and Treaty was high on my priority list of “must-see” bands at Jazz Fest. Michael Trotter Jr. and Tayna Trotter make up this husband and wife duo from Nashville, who graciously shared their soulful rockin’ bluesy country-esque R&B-leaning selves with their attentive NJF audience. When I say their love is palpable, I mean it. In the heart of COVID-19, this power couple wrote over 100 songs as a way of coping, processing, and healing; growing deeper in love with one another, albeit through struggle; and coming out with stories to tell us all. The work shows. This dynamic duo's vocal force vibrates love and power with their pure and passionate stage presence and profound lyrics; deeply resonating with the human experience. They gave me goosebumps from the soles (souls) of my feet to my brain and I’ll surely have to see them again!

Louis Cato | Newport Jazz Festival

From the Harbor Stage to the Quad Stage, Louis Cato (The Late Show Band) brought his fun-loving spirit and musical brilliance to a large crowd of smiling fans as he kicked off his debut performance at NJF! Starting with “Cutie Baby,” the last song on his newly released album Reflections (which was not released until after fest on Aug. 11th), felt like a warm ‘n’ welcoming hug. Next, “Reflections,” the self-titled track of his new album followed, and that’s when I understood why he chose this song as the title and first track of the album. The lyrics are deep, uplifting, and introspective. I interpreted the song as a physical recognition of love for self through the love you find in someone else at the moment you see yourself in their eyes loving on you, which happen to be mirroring/reflecting the love you're emanating and so on and so forth - ya follow??! Reflections. “It’s unreal. How when we move we move together. Sense each other through whatever. We Feel,” Cato sang sweetly as the crowd swayed in agreement.

Louis Cato | Newport, RI

Cato’s original “In My Reach” reached the hearts of happy attendees and resonated with those of us following a dream; feeling so close you can almost touch it. Speaking of dreams (and dreamin’ of the past), Cato launched into John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy” and I almost lost it! He did the song justice, accompanied by those Huntertone Horns and Hammond B-3 organist Larry Goldings. Cato’s rendition gave me goosebumps, especially with his beautiful range, making my Lennon-loving heart swell. It is only natural to be in awe of his abilities as a musician. He has magic in his hands and it’s evident he lives and breathes music. Louis alternated between new songs from Reflections (2023) “Human” & “Good Enough” and songs from his 2017 album Starting Now “Back and Forth” & “Down For You” (featuring the Huntertone Horns). Cato closed out the set with Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up,” which I believe is a clear sign/direction Louis is going in! Upward!

Christian McBride | Newport, RI

Ravi Coltrane | Newport Jazz Fest

Thundercat | Newport Jazz Festival

Artistic Director of the NJF and acclaimed bassist, Christian McBride, led a jammin’ “Jam Jawn'' on the main stage featuring guitarist Eric Krasno (Soulive), Nate Smith (Drummer), Ravi Coltrane (John Coltran’s son) on sax, percussionist and vocalist Nêgah Santos (The Late Show Band), guitarist Celisse , and legendary keyboard player Bob James. Following Jam Jawn the amazing Thundercat, aka Stephen Bruner, sang sweet songs in a space where the cosmos meet mystical jazz meet laser cats meet the Newport Jazz Festival on a purrrrfect Caturday evening. I love Tame Impala, so when I heard Thundercat’s latest single “No More Lies,”I knew I had to see this Cosmic being/bada$$ bassist in action. His words and compositions were intricate and energizing. Loved the ride he took us on with his smooth, funky, and fun time signature changes. His songs about his beloved cats and overall living life in love was the exact vibe I was going for.. Simple, intricate, very profound.

Nêgah Santos | Newport Jazz Fest

Eric ‘Benny’ Bloom | Newport Jazz Fest

Later in the day, another fiery supergroup emerged as “Big Gigantic Does Jazz!” I expected the same Big Gigantic electronica duo with the computer setup, sax, and drums doing jazzy tricks; the two of them doing their normal thang. To my surprise, they welcomed trumpet players Jennifer Hartswick (TAB) & Eric ‘Benny’ Bloom (Lettuce), trombonist Clayton DeWalt (John Brown’s Body & The Temptations), keyboardist Yuki Hirano (A Tribe Called Quest, Kamasi Washington and Lauryn Hill, TAB), Randy Runyon (The Karma Exchange) on guitar and on an additional drum set, and Nate Edgar (The Nth Power & John Brown’s Body) thumpin’ on bass! Wish I could revisit these magical musical moments via archive, but there are no videos or recordings to be found. The show was energizing and a musical marvel. I didn’t catch the whole set because I had to peel away/power walk to Jon Batiste back at the Fort, who was starting 15 minutes before Big Gigantic were scheduled to finish in the Quad.

Nate Edgar | Newport Jazz Festival

The highlight of my weekend was expected to be Jon Batiste, and I was right. With Batiste’s highly anticipated new album, World Music Radio, releasing on August 18, 2023, fans were expecting to hear an amalgamation of old and new songs.  When Jon came out in that brilliant red suit, the crowd erupted! He was backed by a 17-piece band, including 11 horn players! I recognized many musicians from The Late Show Band/Stay Human on stage such as percussionist Nêgah Santos, drummer Joe Saylor, and trumpeter Jon Lampley. I also noticed Brandon “Taz” Niederauer stage right. I hadn’t seen him in years but I recognized his tone right away!

Jon Batiste | Newport Jazz Festival

Batiste brought us to church with his joyful inclusive and soulful presence. You don’t have to be a religious person to allow him to move you to your core, especially when his song “Freedom” fills the air. When Jon says, “let me see you wobble,” you move your body! He won’t have it any other way. He even stopped the band to address the crowd in the middle of “Freedom” saying, “Where I’m from, and people play this kind of music, people move 10 times more than y’all are moving right now. I need to see you get free! Get to your inner child, your freedom, your dance, your movement… right now, no preamble! Right now, no preamble! Right Now, no preamble!” He reiterated and was heard;  hands held high to show movement and arms full of goosebumps.

One of my favorite surprises of Batiste’s set was having Louis Cato sit in, sharing his beautiful vocals and scat to boot! I wished Cato had been out there the entire time because seeing those two on stage together brought a whole new exciting level of creativity and collaboration. Another sweet surprise was Jon’s extended melodica intro into his original song, “Let God Lead.” Everyone knows Jon plays the melodica like no other, so all ears were on him as he played. Audience members were encouraged to clap along. When he was done with his intro, Batiste began clapping along in unison and singing his words of love on beat with the crowd. Bonus: even the “Jazz Cowboy,” Joe Saylor, was given a tambourine solo during this song, which frankly brought the heat! You don’t hear a lot of love for tambourine players, but Saylor plays a mean tambourine and I’m here for it!

From the start, the New Orleans spirit flowed through the air. Near the end, it was everywhere. Jon Batiste and his band were perceived to exit stage right, only to pop out into the crowd ready for a second line; Cato by his side and laughing! Coincidentally, I happened to be close when they appeared, so with a fan in one hand and a handkerchief in the other, I lined up behind the band dancing and weaving through a crowd of smiling faces. I inevitably settled center stage, a row back from the front; my hanky still flyin’ high as I danced with a whole new group of people. Memories of New Orleans flooded my heart while rooting me in the present moment at this special show I’ll never forget.


Final day of NJF began with Chilean jazz vocalist, Claudia Acuña, in the Quad as well as 22-year-old prodigy pianist, Matthew Whitaker, held down the Harbor Stage as folks filed in. Whitaker had been playing the piano since he was 3 years old and his practice and perseverance are evident on and off stage. This compassionate and blind musician makes the world a better place when he’s not playing by advocating for people with disabilities; “consulting with companies to improve accessibility features.” He’s a joy to watch and a feel-good way to start the last day.

Following Whitaker, Havana native and now New Yorker singer, songwriter, arts advocate, actress, and educator Melvis Santa/Melvis Santa & Jazz Orisha’s, captured our attention with jazz fusion influenced by her Cuban heritage. Overlapping with Santa on the Fort Stage, French Caribbean artist Adi Oasis brought that funky bass and fantastic fresh vocals to share! The crowd got it, “Get It Got It,” and this fashionable ‘n’ fiery female bassist, vocalist, and producer surely gained a lot of new fans and had a stellar set.

The Scary Goldings | Newport Jazz Festival

Larry Goldings | Newport Jazz Festival

Ryan Lerman | The Scary Goldings

John Scofield | Newport Jazz Festival

Tal Wilkenfeld | Newport Jazz Festival

My Sunday highlight was brought to me by The Scary Goldings, led by Larry Goldings on keys (James Taylor, John Mayer), Ryan Lerman on guitar (John Legend, Ben Folds), and Jack Conte on Wurlitzer electric piano (co-founder of Scary Pockets, Pomplamoose, CEO of Patreon). Legendary guitar player John Scofield soared alongside phenomenal female bassist Tal Wilkenfeld (Jeff Beck, Incubus), and drummer Ted Poor (Andrew Bird, UW Professor) who killed it on the kit. They were all in the pocket throughout this short but sweet set, opening with “We Come In Peace,” cooking a little “Cornish Hen” in the middle, and closing out their set with a “Humble Strut” > “Clem Fandango” > “Professor Vicarious” > “Taco Bells Canon.” Even if you have no idea what any of these songs sound like, I bet you’re at least curious now.

Samara Joy | Newport Jazz Festival

On the way to the Quad Stage to catch Samara Joy’s set, before heading back to see Diana Krall perform on Fort Stage, the Harbor Stage reeled me in with Somi serenading her surroundings. Her compositions and harmonies were magnetic and moving. I couldn’t stop moving and why would I want to? This “East African Midwestern girl,” born in Illinois to parents who emigrated from Rwanda and Uganda, has clearly been influenced by her African roots;  melded into a perfect fusion of African Jazz, soul, and pop. In the heart-center of Fort Adams, Samara Joy wowed and wooed audience members with her timeless Jazz vocals, giving off Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday vibrations. She’s only in her early 20s yet connects so deeply with music of the past. I loved it and judging by the audience they did, too.

Diana Krall | Newport Jazz Fest

I have a soft spot for Diana Krall, which is also a pretty good description of how Krall’s voice makes me feel; soft, light, and calm. My mother absolutely loved her music and I grew accustomed to it in high school. Mama Dukes gave me Love Scenes (1997) when I was asked to join the jazz band my sophomore year, and that’s when my appreciation for the genre began. I played that CD until it was all scratched up and skippin’ beats, and I remember it well. I hadn’t had the pleasure of witnessing Diana Krall perform live before the NJF, and she sounded as perfect as I thought she would; just as she always has - flawless, smooth, and soft. Not surprising she still has it after 30 years on the scene!

Herbie Hancock, who knows his way around Jazz Fest, closed out the festival with a sunny and silly set on the Fort Stage. I enjoyed watching this force of nature in his early 80s invoke a childlike nature I could only hope to have 40 years from now!! He never lost it. I just learned Herbie was a child piano prodigy, performing a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11 - just a few years before the first Newport Jazz Festival. In other words, he was born with it. His ongoing passion for the evolution of electronics and science continues to shape his ever-expanding musical brain and repertoire. Herbie got cosmic and “weird with it” on Sunday, singing through a vocoder and evidently, he is master of the keytar, too! It was the best kind of weird, ya know? All Your Keytar Are Belong to Us. I digress. Herbie Hancock’s musical brilliance closed out a perfect weekend at NJF ‘23 and I left excited for next year!!


See you back in Newport this summer!

Last year’s NJF lineup left jaws dropped and wicked sore from smiling all weekend. I can’t imagine what they’re going to do to celebrate the 70th year of its inception in 2024. Year after year the Newport Jazz Festival mindfully curates a lineup to evolve with the times, featuring new young hip revolutionary artists, while continuing to honor what came before. I can’t wait to see what the 70th celebration has in store!


Lauren Sevian | Newport Jazz Festival

On Friday at the Harbor Stage, Lauren Sevian’s LSQ (Lauren Sevian’s Quartet) and her smooth sax left spectators swaying. Shortly after Sevian’s set, Juilliard-level pianist and musical prodigy, Julius Rodriguez, wowed audiences on the Harbor Stage at the same time the Immanuel Wilkins Quartet filled the Quad with notes from his seamless sax. One of those “I wish we could be in two places at once,” because it was new music to my ears and that’s what it’s all about!

Julius Rodriguez | Newport Jazz Festival

Immanuel Wilkins | Newport Jazz Festival

Afro-Cuban funk master, Cimafunk, brought the beats to the Quad for an afternoon dance party on Sunday. The energy was high and the vibes were off the charts. Be sure to catch him at The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in the spring & The Saratoga Jazz Fest in the early summer of 2024!

Samara Joy’s setlist:

If You Never Fall in Love With Me> Chega de Saudade > Stardust >Tight > Reincarnation of a Lovebird > Guess Who I Saw Today/Lately > Linger Awhile > Sweet Pumpkin

Herbie Hancock’s setlist:

Overture > Footprints > Secret Sauce > Actual Proof > Chameleon